2017; 455 pages. Full Title: The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage. Book # 1 (out of 2 so far) in the “Book of Dust” series. New Author? : No. Genre : “Friendship Fiction” (that’s what Amazon labels it); YA; Coming of Age; Fantasy. Overall Rating : 5½*/10.
How in the world can a 6-month-old baby attract so much attention?
Some shady characters have brought her to the Priory of Saint Rosamund, located just across the Thames river from an inn called “The Trout”. Now all sorts of people at the inn are asking about her. Two of them claim to be her father. No one claims to be her mother.
The nuns at the priory are taking good care of the baby, whose name is Lyra. 11-year-old Malcolm, who has a regular job at the Trout and at times helps out at the priory, is well-acquainted with the goings-on at both places. Something has the nuns spooked a bit; they’re having their handyman, Mr. Taphouse, put shutters on all the priory's windows, to deter anyone from breaking in.
But if someone is really determined to break into the priory in order to get to Lyra, shutters alone seem like an inadequate defense. There are other means to entering that don't involve a window.
And of course, shutters won't be any use at all if the mother of all floods comes roaring down the Thames.
What’s To Like...
The Book of Dust (which is what we’ll call this, at least until we read/review Book 2) is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, which was published in 1995-2000. That series is fantastic, featuring a 12-year-old Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, as they brave the Arctic region to rescue lost children. Now, 20-25 years later, we learn about Lyra’s beginnings, and become a lot more familiar with the parallel-world London into which she was born.
The book is divided into two parts of about equal length. Part One is called “The Trout” and is mostly concerned with character introductions, world-building, and ramping up the intrigue surrounding baby Lyra. Part Two is titled “The Flood”, and focuses on Malcolm, Lyra, and a girl named Alice as they flee down the raging Thames in a tricked-up canoe christened “La Belle Sauvage”, in search of safety.
The parallel world is similar to ours, with a few subtle changes. Some are just different spellings: Britain becomes “Brytain” and chocolate is now “chocolatl”. A few historical divergences are hinted at: with the terms “Swiss War”, and “German Ocean”. The main difference is that everyone is born with his own personal daemon, a sort of spirit animal that houses one’s soul.
I liked the various steampunk gadgets: truth measurers, naphtha and anbaric lamps, gyropters, and most importantly, the rare and highly-treasured alethiometers. The cutting-edge science is focused on Rusakov fields and the titular “dust”. Although humans and their daemons predominate, Malcolm and company also run into witches, fairies, a water-loving giant, and the enigmatic “Old Father Thames”.
I thought the character development was excellent. There’s not much you can do with a six-month-old infant protagonist (feed her and change her nappy), but everyone else has their own personalities, and the jury’s still out on a couple of them as to whether they’re good guys or baddies. I also liked the optical “spangled rings” that occasionally plague Malcolm. I occasionally have those too, although, unlike Malcolm's, mine don’t seem to serve any magical purpose.
Kewlest New Word...
Stone the Crows (phrase) : an exclamation of surprise or shock. (a Britishism)
Others : grizzling (v.); knurling (n.); marquetry (n.); espalier (n.).
“I wonder if you’ve met a man called Lord Asriel. He’s a friend of my people, a notable explorer in that part of the world.”
“He has been here, but not recently. I did hear…” The professor looked awkward for a second, and then his eagerness overcame his reluctance. “I don’t listen to gossip, you understand.”
“Oh, neither do I,” said Coram. “Sometimes I overhear it, though.”
“Overhear?” said Lofgren. “That is very good.” (pg. 54)
“Hey, you know the man who was murdered? The one who was strangled and thrown in the pond?”
“You’re not supposed to talk about him.”
“Yeah, but you know what my dad heard?”
“He was a spy.”
“How do they know?”
“My dad couldn’t tell me that, ‘cause of the Official Secrets Act.”
“Then how could he tell you the man was a spy in the first place? En’t that an official secret?”
“No, ‘cause if it was, he wouldn’t be able to tell me, would he?” (pg. 108)
“We can only defend democracy by being undemocratic. Every secret service knows this paradox.” (pg. 204)
Alas, for me The Book of Dust was a bit of a disappointment in a number of respects. The pacing in the first half of the book is incredibly slow, and while there's a goodly amount of intrigue, there’s not much action and/or fantasy. The second half at least has more action, but it’s really just a 200-page chase. Maybe Philip Pullman intended to write this as a “YA friendship” type of book, but it is in stark contrast to his preceding trilogy, which had oodles of excitement.
The ending was a letdown for me. Our heroes make it to London (that's not a spoiler), but Lyra’s haven seemed anything but secure to me, given the resources the bad guys have at their disposal. Even worse, a slew of plot threads are simply left dangling. To wit:
How did the main baddie follow our heroes so easily?
When the mega-flood hit, what happened to everyone in Malcolm’s village, including his parents?
Exactly why are the baddies so fixated on Lyra?
Was there a cosmic reason for that oh-so-timely flood?
Is there any purpose for all the attention paid to "one-way screws"?
I recognize that leaving some plot threads unresolved is a catchy literary device when penning a series, but good grief, couldn’t a couple of these have been tied up here?
5½ Stars. Philip Pullman is a sufficiently talented writer to where he keeps things in this book reasonably interesting, but frankly, the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t see that it contributes anything to Lyra’s saga, and now that we know its sequel, The Secret Commonwealth, takes place after the original trilogy, this prequel seems even more pointless.
Still, if you can’t get enough of the world of His Dark Materials, and you love the concept of a personal daemon, you’ll be quite content with The Book of Dust.